I know this is a bit late, but here is the sermon I preached this Ash Wednesday at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley, CA.
2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Why are we here?
That answer seems simple enough: We are here to begin the season of Lent.
We are gathered to prepare ourselves for the remembrance of Christ’s death and his glorious resurrection.
We are here to prepare as the holy people of God have always prepared when approaching the mysteries of God’s grace.
Scripture testifies that drawing near to God includes purification by fasting and repentance.
But Scripture also warns that we need to have a right understanding of this process.
We live in an age in which our focus is so highly individualized.
So when we hear the word repentance, our minds first go to personal sins.
It is appropriate to deal with these but Scripture teaches that our concern ought not to be just with how our sins touch us but even more so how they effect others.
The purpose of fasting and repentance of sins is not to make ourselves feel closer to God.
God desires our fasting and repentance to be a way to reset the entire social order
The message of Scripture, over and over, is that sin matters because it distorts our relationship with God, with one another, and with all that God has created.
God’s desire for the people of God to reset their social order is found in our reading from Isaiah.
These words are addressed to the exiles from Babylon.
They are seeking to re-establish their relationship with God as they restore their worship of God at the Temple in Jerusalem.
A fast, they believe, will draw them closer to God.
But the prophet tells them a fast alone won’t suffice.
Attending to their personal sphere alone won’t do it.
And they know it.
They ask: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ (Is 58:3a)
The prophet responds:
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.” (Is 53:3b-4)
God will not hear the people’s cry until they repair their relationships with one another.Isaiah reminds us that God the Creator desires all creation to be in right relationship.
But the returning exiles are not in right relationship with their neighbors, and thus not with God either.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until it is accompanied by justice and peace.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until their workers are paid fairly.
Their fast is not pleasing to God until they cease fighting with one another.
This is the fast God desires from the people of God.
Scripture says it plainly:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? [Is 58:6-7]
The fast that pleases God is a just fast.
It is a fast that involves sharing what you don’t eat with the hungry.
It is a fast that houses the homeless.
It is a fast that clothes the needy.
It is a fast that purifies not only your soul but also heals society.
And the prophet is clear: if you do not counteract injustice you are complicit with it.
Will your fast be a just fast?
It is this question that drives Jesus’ words on fasting that we have heard.
Jesus does not disapprove of fasting.
We know this because he himself fasted for forty days in the wilderness.
What he opposes is the fast that is not just.
He opposes the fast that makes us feel we are holy and special while we ignore our responsibility as people of God to do justice and to make peace.
If we are satisfied with the simple act of fasting and penitence today and this Lent, Jesus tells us we have lost our way.
In the Gospels, over and over again, Jesus calls his disciples into relationship with the God of Israel and with one another.
Jesus, like Isaiah, teaches that all we have is from God the Creator.
We are made from dust, to dust we will return, all we possess comes from God.
Being from dust, depending on God for our being, we are set free to be in loving relationship with all, including those we have oppressed, whether personally or complicity.
This is a key element of what the Kingdom of God means to Jesus.
This vision of the Kingdom of God encompasses a life in which all of God’s people are in a relationship and in which no one is diminished.
All are to be loved as God loves, both your neighbor and your enemy, both those you aid and those you oppress.
The point of repentance is to not only focus on what inhibits our relationship with God, but to repent of that which harms and diminishes others.
And when Jesus speaks of the rewards of heaven, I think he has in mind rewards that bring us closer to God and to the ideal way in which we are called to live.
We are called to feed hungry and care for the needy.
When this happens, what was missing and broken in our common lives is repaired.
We are called to a fast in which we move beyond ourselves and our personal concerns to a wider circle of concern for others.
We are called to a just fast.
Our reward for taking on a just fast is that in those small mundane tasks of justice the patterns of the kingdom of God slowly become visible among us.
We will come up soon and receive ashes on our head and be told that we are from dust and will return to dust.
We are born with nothing and we will leave with nothing.
We depend on God alone for our life.
And so if we depend on God alone, what is there to lose in taking on this just fast, this fast in which we expand the circle beyond ourselves?
We are dust.
All we have depends on God.
So, feed the hungry.
Clothe the naked.
Care for the needy.
Stop your quarrels.
This is the fast God desires.
This is the fast that leads to the cross and to the empty tomb and to the risen Christ.
The ash on your head will mark another step on the path of living out God’s justice.
There is nothing to lose and the treasures of heaven to gain.